LONDON // They referred to each other by their first names, they talked about their children, the World Cup and beer, and they assured everyone prepared to listen that the "special relationship" between the US and UK remained alive and well. The problem for the best-of-pals act between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister David Cameron was that it was played out beneath the dark cloud that is BP.
No longer was the spill in the Gulf of Mexico the bone of contention - Mr Cameron reasserted that the company would fully meet all compensation claims - but, rather, the release from a life sentence of Abdelbasset Ali al Megrahi, the Lockerbie bomber. Foreign Office sources in London yesterday expressed frustration that al Megrahi's release on compassionate grounds last year should be dominating Mr Cameron's first official visit to the United States, which concluded yesterday with talks in New York with the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon.
US senators accused BP of putting pressure on then-premier Tony Blair in 2007 to sign a prisoner transfer agreement (PTA) with Muammar Qadafi, the Libyan leader, in return for the company securing a contract with the Libyans worth US$900 million (Dh3.3 billion). The deals were signed on the same day and BP has admitted lobbying Mr Blair to get the agreement signed. But Britain points out that al Megrahi, who served eight years of a life sentence for planting the bomb that killed 270 people when Pan Am Flight 103 exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, was not released under the PTA, an arrangement under which a Libyan convicted of a crime in the UK can serve out his or her sentence in a prison in their home country.
Rather, al Megrahi was freed on compassionate grounds by the quasi-independent Scottish government after doctors said he had a maximum of three months to live after being diagnosed with prostate cancer. That was last August and al Megrahi is still alive, adding to the fury of the relatives of the 190 US citizens killed at Lockerbie. "The Americans just don't seem to get it," said one Foreign Office source yesterday. "His release had nothing to do with the PTA or the UK government.
"The Scottish executive made the decision entirely independently and David Cameron [then leader of the opposition] opposed his release at the time. Unfortunately, all the Americans seem able to see is BP." However, the suspicions of the four US senators pressing for a congressional inquiry - and whom Mr Cameron eventually agreed to meet on Tuesday after initially refusing - appear to have grounds.
Saif Qadafi, the Libyan leader's son and heir apparent, told Libyan TV at the time of al Megrahi's release that "in all commercial contracts for oil and gas with Britain, he [Megrahi] was always on the negotiating table". During his press conference in Washington, Mr Cameron flatly rejected the senators' call for an independent public inquiry in Britain. "I don't need an inquiry to tell me what was a bad decision," he stated flatly. "Let us not confuse the oil spill with the Libyan bomber."
The US Senate, however, looks determined to press ahead with its own inquiry this month and could even try to call Mr Blair to give details of the deal he reached with Mr Qadafi. The Scottish first minister, Alex Salmond, whose administration freed al Megrahi, criticised Mr Blair yesterday for negotiating the prisoner agreement at the same time as the BP contract was signed as it inevitably gave rise to suspicions of "a deal in the desert".
But he added in a BBC radio interview: "As far as the Scottish government is concerned, we had no contact with BP, either written or verbal, as far as the process of [Megrahi's] compassionate release was concerned." The four US senators who met Mr Cameron, however, show no signs of letting the matter rest. Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, said after the meeting that, just because Mr Cameron opposed al Megrahi's release, it did not mean it was "case closed".
Mr Menendez added in a statement: "Only with complete information about the circumstances surrounding Megrahi's release can we get the full understanding that is needed to determine the next steps." For all the bonhomie on display at the White House, BP remains an uncomfortable thorn in the side of the transatlantic alliance. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org